“No one is surprised that there is a Yiddishland in Ukraine”: Bearers of culture on promoting Ukraine in France

One special feature of the 2018 Salon [du livre de Paris] was that it included a rather spacious Ukrainian stand and a packed program of events. Among the discussions that took place were conversations about Ukrainian multiculturalism. The books on display included ones devoted to the history of the Jews in Ukraine.

So, it is no accident that on the Encounters program we are speaking with two Parisian women from Ukraine, both of whom work as bearers of culture. One of them, Iryna Dmytryshyn, who teaches at the Paris-based National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations, supervises the work of the Ukrainian Language Department. She is a successful translator, one of whose recent publications is her translation of Sofia Andrukhovych’s novel Felix Austria, which has already received positive reviews in the press. Another example of Dmytryshyn’s work as a Kulturträger [Someone or something that transmits cultural ideals—Ed.] is her work on preparing an anthology of literature from and about the Donbas. Our second guest is Irena Karpa, a well-known writer, singer, and soloist of the musical group Qarpa. Karpa is active in promoting Ukrainian culture in France, and thanks to her efforts, much organizing work was done to create a Ukrainian stand at the largest literary event in France in 2018.

Iryna Slavinska:  So, at the beginning of the first part of the Encounters program, you will hear a fragment of my conversation with Iryna Dmytryshyn. For starters, I asked her whether it is complicated in France to talk about Ukraine as a multicultural country.

Iryna Dmytryshyn: I think it is. Obviously, Ukrainian culture exists, but part of Ukrainian culture in the sense of the Ukrainian nation consists of Polish and Hungarian and Jewish culture, etc. It’s very good that today it is precisely these layers that are being broached and presented as part of Ukrainian culture.

Iryna Slavinska:  How can this be communicated to the French public? This is a question for you as a translator and as a bearer of culture.

Iryna Dmytryshyn:  You know, it’s not that complicated. In principle, the Western world and the Eastern European world began to do this much earlier than we did. For example, it is absolutely not surprising to anyone that there is a Yiddishland in Ukraine. Everyone knows that countries have minorities on their borders, especially in such historically complex countries as our Eastern European lands.

I think that the French are significantly more open and sensitive to this than, perhaps, we are. That is, the concept of nation as a community of citizens, regardless of their ethnic origins, their religious affiliation—this is the norm, it is perceived absolutely normally.

Iryna Slavinska:  Well, then I have a more specific question. How does one work with this while translating, for example? After all, Ukrainian texts have a very specific phraseology and borrowings from other languages. It is probably necessary to look for some analogues in the French language.

Iryna Dmytryshyn:  You have to search for analogues. And you, too, have probably noticed that there is no single recipe. In other words, I had two serious translation decisions that I had to make: Maria Matios and Sofia Andrukhovych. Both in the first and second book the emphasis in Ukraine was always on language, its mellifluousness and archaic nature. So here each time I had to make a specific decision.

As regards Maria Matios, for example, at first I thought about taking some kind of regionalism, maybe Corsica or the south of France, but it did not come out sounding typical [of those regions], and we quickly reverted to obsolete French forms, to archaic expressions, in order to show that this is about a world which is closed inside itself, removed, absolutely hermetic.

As for Sofia Andrukhovych’s Felix Austria, obviously the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is well known. It was easier for a German translator to work because…

Iryna Slavinska:  Because this is his/her native Austro-Hungarian Empire…

Iryna Dmytryshyn:  Yes, yes. But, for example, in the novel it was not worth translating the word Lindengasse as Linden Street. It would have taken us into a completely different… Nevertheless, I retained some elements of the German world in the German language, so that the French reader can sense that the novel is about a fragment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even if s/he did not know about this, it would be repeated and recreated on the linguistic and subconscious levels.

I also conveyed certain moments in archaic language. For example, I argued a lot with the editor about the bicycle [rover]. If you recall, the word diana is in the book, and this is an old brand name. Тhe editor says that no one will understand, and I say that it’s worth banking on the intelligent reader, who will figure out more or less that when the heroine jumps onto her diana, it’s not a car.

Often these points were also subjects of discussion with the publisher. I have been lucky to work with sensitive publishers who understand all these nuances; that’s why each time we tried to find a solution.

Iryna Slavinska:  I can imagine what a challenge this is. Did you have to create footnotes? Was it necessary to explain some things? In my experience with French literature, I have translated mostly non-fiction, but also fiction. I know that there are times when it is simpler to create a footnote because it explains some translation choice, although there are people who believe that footnotes are dispensable in the work of a translator.

Iryna Dmytryshyn:  I think that one should consider that a footnote is not a failure on the part of a translator; a footnote also has the right to exist, and I also agree that there are times when it is better to explain, so that the reader will have a better understanding of both the text itself and the author, and what s/he had in mind. A country like ours, which is little known to the Western reader, needs the footnotes that were in Felix Austria, where Sofia does some explaining, because it was necessary to elucidate a lot of things from our Ukrainian context.

Iryna Slavinska:  What kinds of things did you explain, for example? You explained about plastuny [members of the Ukrainian scouting organization Plast], and what else?

Iryna Dmytryshyn: Yes, we explained about the plastuny. We explained various moments in the history of Galicia, Ukraine, some surnames. That is, each time we tried to find a solution. It was my intention not to abuse footnotes, because this was, after all, a novel, not an essay or a historical account, where everything must be elucidated. Here it was necessary to strive to reduce them to a minimum.

Certain moments I did not want to explain; for example, everything to do with the Jewish world. It seemed to me that people here, too, should be aware of this: various objects used during religious holidays, etc. Here, on the contrary, the publisher paid attention to the fact that there are explanations in the Ukrainian book. I thought that everybody already knows about Hanukkah. No, he says, you have to explain.

It’s good that there is my view as well as a publisher who reads the prepared text and can point out what is not comprehensible. In the given book there were both Sofia’s footnotes and certain moments that did not have to be explained to the Ukrainian reader, but had to be explained to the French reader, and something that was added, for which I would not create a footnote. But this was the publisher’s decision, and I acquiesced at certain times.

Iryna Slavinska:  It’s good when there is a signpost like this for communicating with French readers. Maybe a view from the sidelines really does reveal certain things. If we are talking about reader response, every book, especially a book written by Ukrainian authors, particularly on some painful or controversial topics, particularly in the context of the war in Ukraine, etc., they lie in the contemporary context, the context of news about the Minsk negotiations, about the LNR [Luhansk People’s Republic], the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic], and the like. Did you notice from the reader response that the contemporary context somehow influences understanding of the Ukrainian material?

Iryna Dmytryshyn:  Of course, it has an impact; perhaps, even the reverse. Reading these books sheds light on contemporary events and, on the one hand, the fact that Ukraine is being talked about but, unfortunately, not for very cheerful reasons. This reinforces attention on Ukraine. Why is this happening there precisely; why don’t they want to “be friends with” its neighbors; what are the reasons?

I think that these books help people understand the context better. Perhaps the current situation is eliciting certain interest. Next is the issue of books, so that they will meet the need for understanding on the part of readers, knowing that literature is an addendum, a background, but it cannot explain everything, unfortunately or fortunately. In other words, I think that this addendum, this crucial addendum is part of the soul, which allows people to understand and perceive the country itself better.

Iryna Slavinska:  Next in our conversation with Iryna Dmytrychyn we will be discussing a complex topic: the topic of stereotypes about Ukraine in the eyes, ears, and minds of French readers, listeners, and viewers; Ukraine and the stereotype that it is intolerant, antisemitic, etc.

Iryna Dmytryshyn:  Obviously, you have to try to break down these stereotypes that today, against the background of the war, are the products of French views not only of Ukraine but the whole world in general.

Today, for various reasons, extreme left and extreme right countries have united in their rejection of the Ukrainian question, but they are united in their love of Russia, their hatred of America. Next, we must not forget that France generally conducts its own policies and has its own vision of the world based on France’s interests. We can always appeal to the symbol of freedom, everything that France has given to the world, but today, instead, pragmatism is more present.

That is why enlightenment in the original sense of this word is absolutely crucial and necessary. I think that we have to convey and report the truth about Ukraine more, without concealing all the negative moments that exist. I think that there are already enough people who are ready to perceive Ukraine as a serious country, without the need for spectacles or unnecessary stratifications in analyzing it. You see this with journalists, who have been coming [here] since 2013 and are already very well oriented. Today a new generation has grown up, which did not experience the Soviet Union, which fashioned its understanding of the world in independent Ukraine, out of the world’s multipolarity, from the non-existence of the center in Moscow, for whom it is much simpler and more natural to perceive our aspirations, our vision.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is Ukraine an exotic country in the eyes of the French?

Iryna Dmytryshyn:  This certain exoticism also can spark interest and stimulate people to go farther. But I think we are not all that exotic, compared to Thailand or African countries. We are close by yet unknown at the same time. We seem to exist, but it’s as though we don’t.

Unfortunately, apart from political moments, so far there is no general interest in Ukraine, and we have to work on this. And books are one of the ways to overcome this general ignorance and become inscribed into the European context.

I often say that in France we missed an opportunity in the university sphere. For some time, there were no researchers on Ukraine and, for example, when an anthology on the Don Juan figure was being prepared, they collected everybody but the Ukrainians. Then I went to the compiler and asked why Ukraine had not been included. He says: “I didn’t even think that you have something about this.” But we do. In a similar case, another university sent me an invitation saying that we will be holding a large conference on the Danube River. Come and bring your students. I say that I’ll come, but why didn’t you invite us sooner? After all, we too are involved with the Danube to some extent, we could have done something, joined this conference, proposed a topic… And this Hungarian historian looks at me and says: “Indeed, why didn’t we think of you?”

Iryna Slavinska:  You have the Danube in Ukraine. Wonder of wonders!

Iryna Dmytryshyn:  Right. In other words, I understand that this person is absolutely aware, he knows that Ukrainian Studies exist. And in connection with the Danube he invited everyone, the Balkan countries, Romania… But to him we are a blank spot, where nothing is happening. And I realize that if even a person who is positively attuned and has no prejudices, like that Hungarian, he knows something about this world, knows that there is such a country; if even the likes of him forgets that we have some connection to this, then you realize the level of ignorance that exists in all other fields.

Iryna Slavinska:  Irena Karpa is joining our discussion. At the start of our conversation in this part of the program I pose a question that you already heard in the first part of our program: about Ukraine as a multicultural country. Irena reflects on how easy it is to promote Ukraine to the French public precisely as a multicultural country.

Irena Karpa:  Well, this is truly our trump card. Even today we are launching the book stand, and our mission for the person who is dealing with the catering is to have her prepare small appetizers that represent different regions of Ukraine.

Iryna Slavinska:  In other words, not just salo [fatback].

Irena Karpa: Not just salo. There will be mini-varenyky and micro-borshch playing the role of gazpacho; there will be baked patties. For example, small, baked savory pastries from the Donbas, cheesecake from Lviv, herring from Odesa, salo from Poltava. To put it bluntly, we can in an unobtrusive feed people with Ukraine, as it exists today. And this is very important.

I heard you talking about antisemitism. These are truly very widespread tricks that are circulating everywhere. Meanwhile, I am renting an apartment from an old Ashkenazi Jew, and he knows a lot about Uman, although he asked me earlier what the capital of Ukraine is. But he knew Uman. And this can be presented very nicely.

Right now, at this book salon we are diagonally across from the Russian stand, and this is interesting because we have [Oleg] Sentsov displayed, an anthology about the Donbas, Gulnara Bikieva’s Crimean History, and this is good intellectual trolling. All these books are in the French language; that is, when visitors get tired of listening to lies at that other stand, they can turn away and go to see some truth. That’s why we always emphasize that this is a multicultural state. I personally very much like this correct trolling strategy of [Andrey] Kurkov’s, which he invented: that the Russian language has to be adopted—not even curbed—but adopted. And to explain to everyone that here, for example, is the French-Canadian language, but the Ukrainian-Russian language differs from Russian.

Iryna Slavinska:  It also differs from region to region. You will not confuse Kyiv’s Russian with any other.

Irena Karpa:  Yes, absolutely, just like Kharkiv Russian. Here you have the Ukrainian-Russian language, part of the population… I think that this is entirely correct because then the Kremlin loses quite a large space for insinuations that the population does not identify itself without language. This is interesting, incidentally, because time is passing, the context is changing very markedly. I see what is happening in Ukraine. Each time that our right-wingers think up some bullshit, a lot of terrible hype erupts over here, people yelling about fascism.

Iryna Slavinska:  We are continuing our conversation with Irena Karpa about stereotypes, myths, and realities about Ukraine. In particular, we are talking about what the media are saying, writing, and broadcasting about Ukraine.

Irena Karpa:  I am saying that this is, once again, a question of doling out information. They are given what is convenient for someone to hear. You know, scandals, executions, tortures, and freaks are perceived with considerably more enjoyment than some kind of victory, reforms, than some statistics that have changed for the better. They remain as mere figures. That’s human nature. A negative emotion is much more vivid than a positive one.

We often get telephone calls to the Embassy from some men or women, who have adult sons. They say: “My son has fallen in love with a Ukrainian woman, he wants to go to Ukraine. Is it dangerous?” “Where is he going?” “To Kyiv!” “No, bears do not walk along the streets of our country with submachine guns.” We ask questions, we say that, yes, there are certain regions where it’s not worth showing your face right now, if you aren’t an OSCE expert, but very often there are absolutely bizarre questions like that. You get the impression that we truly live three times farther away than Madagascar, not just a few countries’ distance away. Of course, we explain in a popular way, and right now, for example, literature and art are in principle the best method for conveying normal humanistic truths well to other people.

And if you measure by xenophobia, then it is not true that it is off the charts. The Frenchman stops being politically correct after four glasses of Beaujolais nouveau. He will tell you that he has never been to Saint-Denis [a commune in the northern suburbs of Paris] because it’s scary, he says. There is a lot of this. Of course, it differs from district to district, and it’s so funny. For example, I live in the 6th arrondissement, which is very left-wing. It’s bourgeois. It’s those who support all immigrants, but in certain districts during the presidential campaign there were simply hordes of people holding portraits of Le Pen, and one of them ran up to me and says: “Oh, madam, vote,” and I tell him: “I am a foreigner! I am the one against whom you are fighting.” Poor thing, he was so embarrassed.

Iryna Slavinska:  It is impossible to avoid a question about the diaspora of Ukrainians who are living in France or, rather, diasporas, because the Ukrainian milieu is very diverse. These people are of various backgrounds, of various ages, with various reasons for living in France.

Irena Karpa:  There are certain people from the older generations, for example, our parents’ age, give or take a few years. This is the audience that will see the Telniuk Sisters in concert, who will come to hear Oksana Zabuzhko, and who will attend any borshch festivity. And there is a young generation that will not refuse to eat some borshch, even if it has come for Design Week or Fashion Week. It’s very interesting how this works.

Never in my life did I cook borshch in Ukraine—never. I cooked Indian food, French food. But for the first time in my life I consciously cooked borshch in France, in Paris, and it turned out very well. In other words, you know, I understand this case with borshch: You are missing something that you ate in your childhood.

For people, famine, too, is a simple cultural code. That is why they will attend a concert of some perplexing female pop singer because this sends them back to their childhood or student years.

And in the same way people ground themselves a lot on a religious basis. I am anti-clerical, but I very much respect Borys Gudziak [Eparch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Paris] as a person because this is a very deep individual. If a psychoanalyst—the priest of a new generation, new as in the days of Freud—who wanted every village to have a priest as well as a psychoanalyst, then this is an individual who has a very profound understanding of the problems of people who find themselves in emigration, who are very concerned about this, because there is a high percentage of suicides, a large percentage of depression.

Obviously, far from every Ukrainian will be consulting, as I do, with his analyst on Skype. They go to church, to a priest, and they’re lucky that there is someone who will listen to them in their language. And, after all, what I am doing is, rather, attempting to familiarize myself with how Ukraine is changing not only in the eyes of the French, but also Ukrainians, those Ukrainians who have been here a long time. There are new names, new tendencies, everything has not gotten stuck on Oksana Bilozir—with all due respect to Oksana Bilozir—and something has changed. There are new names, Ukrainian design, which is highly esteemed. There is Ukrainian music. Well, with music it is much more complicated because it is not so simple for the Embassy to push it financially.

Iryna Slavinska:  But the Dakh Daughters Band is filling concert halls.

Irena Karpa:  Dakh Daughters is filling concert halls. You see, this is an ideal symbiosis with what can happen when you mix ethnomusic with punk music. These girls are called the children of the Sex Pistols and Taras Shevchenko. And on the musical level, DakhaBrakha is absolutely awesome, when you listen to Ukrainian songs, ethnic songs, but this is of such high quality and so powerful that you don’t have to be Ukrainian to feel that your grandmother sang these songs to you. These are mostly French people, there are Ukrainians, but this is not music for the diaspora, it is normal World Music.

At the same time some French DJs or musicians are performing in French clubs, and I simply don’t even know what percentage of people knows where that Nastia, who performed a couple of days ago in the club where we held a Ukrainian soiree, is from. People simply come and listen to the DJ. Or when we held the Ukrainian soirée, the Bentayga party, when we organized the Independent Kyiv party, and people came to listen to the music.

Whether something is Ukrainian or not Ukrainian, for me it should be high quality. We pay a lot of attention to co-production, where Ukrainians work with French people, where there is some kind of connect; that’s the most important thing, of course, because later it is easier to explain to these same French people.

Iryna Slavinska:  The Ukrainian men and women who come to live in France are also very different. Among them are people of various religions, Orthodox, Jews, Catholics, Greek Catholics, etc., and people of various ethnic backgrounds, and people from various regions, because we cannot cancel out regional patriotism, as it is called. How does this whole mix of people with different backgrounds function? You socialize with them; maybe you see something and are able somehow to use this in your work with Ukrainian culture.

Irena Karpa:  In general, I have somewhat different functions. This is dealt with by my colleague—links with the community.

Iryna Slavinska:  But perhaps you meet them among your viewers.

Irena Karpa:  Of course. There is a certain permanent crowd but, I’ll tell you, these are the youngest ones. In other words, there are a few progressive women who come, but the things that I organize are attended for the most part by the new generation that either arrived here recently or students. Many students from Ukraine, who have not broken away very much, they understand that they want their own events, but high-quality ones. Those who bring their fashionable friends—that’s super. It’s very important, it’s great…

This is a very interesting topic that you are raising. I deal with it partly in the book; that is, when I recount stories of Ukrainians’ relations with Ukrainians, but for this I query people. Not as a person who works at the Embassy… I simply talk to my cleaning lady. Yes, you can’t say this, they are working illegally, but I try to hire only Ukrainians, as nannies, as cleaning ladies. I call this “money for the family.”

Iryna Slavinska:  Our people going to our people for our needs.

Irena Karpa:  Our people going to our people for our needs—yes. Even when we order something, catering or something, we try to have Ukrainians do this for us.  And now, on the basis of semi-gossip, you can monitor their relationships with one another. These are complicated relationships, let’s put it this way. It’s complicated, some kind of great love or cohesion—it could be better. There are very many people in church at Easter, the community is strengthened. But again, as you say, these are people from various levels. Someone arrives, a university lecturer, who gets a low-profile job because it cannot be otherwise, because of the financial situation. Someone else arrives, an ordinary worker. You can’t stick them in the same box just because they are Ukrainians. No one is going to force you to be friends with some gopnik [underprivileged and poorly educated young men and women from the suburbs of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus—Tr.] only because you are in China, and Vasia the gopnik is also from Borshchahivka [Kyiv neighborhood]. You will sooner hang out with some English-speaking Chinese or you will communicate in Chinese because this will be a person on your cultural level. But at the same time, if you happen to need a bouncer, then you’ll probably call up Vasia because it will be simpler to explain your problem to him.

Iryna Slavinska:  And for sure you can meet them at some party featuring borshch in the context of the Ukrainian Embassy.

Irena Karpa:  A party with borshch. You see, the Ukrainian Embassy doesn’t do this very often, but you understand what I’m saying. Where socializing is concerned, people still gather more on the cultural level, but if something happens, if there’s trouble, then above all, I think people turn to Ukrainians. The faucet is leaking, or you need to fix your teeth more cheaply, or get a manicure. And you instantly seek out our people because our people do this better.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.